Number Seven: The Monster Club (1980)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Vincent Price, John Carradine, Donald Pleasance, Britt Ekland, Richard Johnson, Patrick Magee.
The Framing Device: Writer R. Chetwynd-Hayes (Carradine) is attacked by the vampire Eramus (Price, the only time he ever played a vampire on film) in a back alley, but it turns out Eramus is a huge fan of the author. To make it up to Chetwynd-Hayes, Eramus leads the author to the secret nightspot The Monster Club, a discotheque for ghouls and goblins. Chetwynd-Hayes gets to hear a trio of monster stories while hanging out in this underground bar.
Best Story: A movie director searching for an eerie location for his next horror film finds more than he bargained for in a remote village filled with ghouls called the “humegoo”.
Weakest Story: A conniving woman initiates a romantic relationship with an odd monster called a “shadmock” (a pasty-faced recluse that can whistle people to death) so that she can steal his fortune.
The Monster Club was once part of Elvira’s home video line, and it’s got just the sprinkling of cheese one would expect from her label. While the inidividual stories feel like classic Amicus, with decent acting and a focus on atmosphere, the framing device is ridiculously corny. The Monster Club itself is an embarassing mish-mash of Star Wars cantina, Studio 54, and Spencer Gifts. There are a ton of goofy musical segments featuring extras in rubber monster masks gyrating to early 80′s bar music (including an early appearance by UB40, if that’s a selling point). Personally, I find those moments almost equal parts endearing and ridiculous, and they certainly give The Monster Club a different flavor than other films on this list. I also quite enjoy the second tale in this film, a blackly humorous story that follows a young boy whose father is a vampire. All of the segments are adapted from the real R. Chetwynd-Hayes’ short stories.
Number Six: The House that Dripped Blood (1971)
Directed by Peter Duffell. Starring Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Nyree Dawn Porter, Denholm Elliott, Jon Pertwee, Joanna Dunham, Joss Ackland
The Framing Device: Scotland Yard investigators research a house with a mysterious past.
Best Story: The opener, in which Denholm Elliott plays a horror writer who is afraid of actually being stalked by the killer he has created for his newest book.
Weakest Story: The closer, a light-hearted piece of fluff about an actor (Pertwee) that discovers a cape that gives him vampiric powers.
The House that Dripped Blood has possibly the weakest framing device of any film on this list, but the tales inside, credited to Psycho author Robert Bloch, are mostly strong. House commits the cardinal sin of anthology films, choosing to go out on its wimpiest story, instead of the other three superior ones. Cushing appears in a stylish piece about a wax museum, where a former lover of his is apparently on display as a wax figure, and Lee’s segment is strong enough (but not long enough) to stand on its own as a feature film, wherein a father learns his daughter has malevolent supernatural abilities. The opening tale, however, kicks the film off with a Twilight Zone-esque bang, and the overall film never quite delivers on the promise of that first segment.
Number Five: From Beyond the Grave (1973)
Directed by Kevin Connor. Starring Ian Bannen, Ian Carmichael, Peter Cushing, Diana Dors, Margaret Leighton, Donald Pleasance, David Warner.
The Framing Device: Peter Cushing plays the doddering owner of an antique shop whose customers always find more than they bargained for.
Best Story: Angela Pleasance, acting alongside her father, Donald, is downright creepy in the film’s second tale, which finds a braggart attempting to impress a blind war vet by stealing a medal and passing it off as his own. The lives of the two men soon become horrifically intertwined, when the wannabe hero finds comfort in the bed of the veteran’s daughter.
Weakest Story: David Warner’s segment, which features the old chestnut about a haunted mirror that makes men go insane. It’s more violent than the other tales, but it’s not a fresh take on the material.
While the framing device and haunted mirror story feel especially dusty, the two stories sandwiched in the middle of this anthology are downright weird. I’ve mentioned the story about the medal already, one of the strangest tales on this whole list, and that piece is followed up with a creepy bit of comedy about an invisible demon following a man home, and the lengths that man will go to to rid himself of this unseen force. The final tale about a haunted door, is a similar story to the one about the mirror, but it’s faster-paced and more exciting than the mirror’s tale.
Number Four: The Vault of Horror (1973)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Dawn Addams, Tom Baker, Michael Craig, Denholm Elliott, Glynis Johns, Edward Judd, Curt Jurgens.
The Framing Device: Five hotel guests take an unwanted elevator ride into an underground vault where they each relate prophetic tales of their own demise.
Best Story: Glynis Johns and Terry-Thomas seem to be having quite a bit of fun in their story (adapted from a Tales from the Crypt comic) of an obsessive, neat-freak husband and his constantly brow-beaten wife, who finally has enough of his nagging.
Weakest Story: An insurance scam in which a man fakes his own death, leads to the accidental deaths of others.
The Vault of Horror is a pretty consistent anthology across the board, each tale based on a story featured in an EC Comics’ title. There’s a pretty good vampire yarn here, an odd story about a magic trick gone wrong, and a twisted little piece of nastiness about a voodoo-practicing painter (Tom Baker of Dr. Who fame) whose paintings become reality. This is the sequel to 1972′s Tales from the Crypt, and while it’s not as strong as that film, it’s still worth a look. It’s an interesting film, but it’s not particularly creepy, and I think that’s why it’s not remembered as fondly as others on this list.
Number Three: Asylum (1972)
Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Starring Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lom, Patrick Magee, Barry Morse, Barbara Parkins, Robert Powell, Charlotte Rampling.
The Framing Device: A doctor applying for a position at the Dunmoor Asylum for the Incurably Insane is challenged by one of the doctors to find their head of psychiatry, who recently suffered a mental breakdown, amongst the hospital’s patients.
Best Story: (TIE) A cheating spouse conspires to kill his wife, who has recently taken up an interest in the occult, with unsettling results. In another equally alarming tale, Peter Cushing plays a man obsessed with creating a special suit of clothing that will return his son from the dead.
Weakest Story: A yawner about a murderous woman with a split personality.
Asylum‘s anthology works quite well as a whole film, as each story offers the viewer clues to the identity of the doctor trapped within its walls, and you end up guessing along with Robert Powell’s character. It’s a very effective framing device, and the stories here, again from author Robert Bloch, are very dark and very strange. If there’s one complaint, it’s that Asylum‘s reach often extends its grasp, with imaginative sequences that just don’t quite work, I would imagine due to a limited budget. The final story about a miniature killing machine, with a robot’s body and a human’s face, is bizarre, but comes perilously close to campy. Fortunately, Asylum‘s overall weirdness keeps it grounded in fear, not camp, making this one a must-see.
Number Two: Tales from the Crypt (1972)
Directed by Freddie Francis. Starring Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Roy Dotrice, Richard Greene, Ian Hendry, Patrick Magee, Barbara Murray, Sir Ralph Richadson.
The Framing Device: The Crypt-Keeper (Richardson, years before HBO’s pun-loving puppet) takes an audience with five souls, who all tell the tales of their own deaths, while awaiting judgment within the crypt.
Best Story: My favorite features Peter Cushing in a rare turn as a gentle old man forced into solitude (and worse!) by the harassment of a nasty neighbor.
Weakest Story: Probably the tale of a man who wakes up from a car crash to discover that he’s dead and that years have passed since the wreck…OR DID THEY? DUM-DUM-DAHHHHHHHH!!!
Arguably the most famous British horror antholgy film, due in part to its familiar source material (EC’s horror comic books, as well as an early starring role for Joan Collins). Collins is the lead in the “And All Through the House” segment about an escaped looney in a Santa Claus costume (also recreated as the first episode in the Tales from the Crypt HBO series). That story is an EC classic, but I find it ends a little too abruptly for my tastes. Better than that one is a variation on the old “Monkey’s Paw” story, where an ancient Chinese artifact is used to keep bringing a woman’s husband back to life, but even better than that one, and an obvious precursor to the Saw films, is the tale that finds Nigel Patrick as the cruel new director of a home for the blind. His iron hand and cheapskate ways end up getting him caught in an ingenious deathtrap devised by those whose needs he has ignored. It provides a great, memorable ending, the best one on this list so far.
Number One: Dead of Night (1945)
Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer. Starring Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver, Mary Merrall, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk.
The Framing Device: An architect finds himself at a country farmhouse, one he is sure he has seen in his dreams. When he confesses this extreme cae of deja vu to the guests at the house, they each relate their own personal stories of strange phenomena.
Best Story: A ventriloquist suspects that his dummy, Hugo, may actually be alive in this hair-raising segment.
Weakest Story: A hospitalized race car driver has premonitions of death that he can’t explain.
Dead of Night has the best use of a framing device of any film on this list, making sure the individual tales become a part of the overall story as it reaches its chilling, unexpected ending. The stories are fairly diverse–there’s a bit of comedy about a golfer that haunts his rival from beyond the grave, a well-acted Christmas story about the ghost of a small child, and probably the first “haunted mirror” story put to film. While the film does show its age, the framing device and the ventriloquist’s story, the capper on this minor classic, are remarkably fresh and nightmarish, still legitimately scary in the wake of over half a century’s worth of horror flicks. If you’re a fan of classic, black and white horror films, and you still haven’t seen Dead of Night, seek it out and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.